The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900

The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900

The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900

The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900


During the tumultuous closing decades of the nineteenth century, as the prospect of democracy loomed and as intensified global economic and strategic competition reshaped the political imagination, British thinkers grappled with the question of how best to organize the empire. Many found an answer to the anxieties of the age in the idea of Greater Britain, a union of the United Kingdom and its settler colonies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and southern Africa. In The Idea of Greater Britain, Duncan Bell analyzes this fertile yet neglected debate, examining how a wide range of thinkers conceived of this vast "Anglo-Saxon" political community. Their proposals ranged from the fantastically ambitious--creating a globe-spanning nation-state--to the practical and mundane--reinforcing existing ties between the colonies and Britain. But all of these ideas were motivated by the disquiet generated by democracy, by challenges to British global supremacy, and by new possibilities for global cooperation and communication that anticipated today's globalization debates. Exploring attitudes toward the state, race, space, nationality, and empire, as well as highlighting the vital theoretical functions played by visions of Greece, Rome, and the United States, Bell illuminates important aspects of late-Victorian political thought and intellectual life.


When we have accustomed ourselves to contemplate
the whole Empire together and call it England, we shall
see that here too is a United States. Here too is a
homogeneous people, one in blood, language, religion,
and laws, but dispersed over a boundless space.
—J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England (1883)

A firm and well-compacted union
of all the British lands would form a state
that might control the whole world.
—Charles Oman, England in the Nineteenth

THE HISTORY of modern political thought is partly the history of the attempt to confront increasing global interdependence and competition. The Idea of Greater Britain focuses on an important but neglected aspect of this chronicle: the debate over the potential union of the United Kingdom with its so-called settler colonies—the lands we know now as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, as well as parts of South Africa—during the late Victorian age. Straddling oceans and spanning continents, this polity was to act, so its advocates proclaimed, as a guarantor of British strength and of a just and stable world. I explore the languages employed in imagining the settler empire as a single transcontinental political community, even as a global federal state, with the intention of contributing to the history of imperial thought and Victorian intellectual life. I seek to shed light on the ways in which the future of world order—the configuration and dynamics of economic and geopolitical power, and the normative architecture justifying this patterning—was perceived in an age of vital importance for the development of politics in the twentieth century and beyond.

The quest for Greater Britain was both a reaction to and a product of the complex evolution of nineteenth-century international politics. The turbulent economic and political conditions of the era engendered profound anxiety, leading to the belief that a colossal polity was indispensable for preserving strength in a world in flux. In this sense it was reactive. But it was a product in the sense that the communications technologies facilitating increasing levels of economic interdependence also generated . . .

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